Father Ernest Sabatier is part of the history of Kiribati. His book: Soux l'equateur du Pacifique was translated into English by Ursula Nixon and published by Oxford University Press in 1977, under the title: ASTRIDE THE EQUATOR - An Account of the Gilbert Islands.
I have taken the liberty of reproducing below, for the benefit of researchers and other interested parties, who would like to learn more about Kiribati, some interesting aspects of Kiribati life, along with some very important observations and recollections of Father Ernest Sabatier, a missionary in Kiribati for many years.
Also, I will be including some of my own comments below, in italics, on certain sections of the text that may need to be discussed and clarified a little further from an I-Kiribati perspective.
This is what Mrs R. L. Stevenson felt when she saw dancing on Butaritari: "I became hot and cold, tears welled from my eyes, my head was spinning and I had an irresistible urge to join the dancers'. She noticed 'bodies swaying together to the rhythm like a field of corn in the wind'.
R. L. Stevenson himself wrote: 'Of all they call dance in the Pacific, the performance I saw on Butaritari was easily the best ... Gilbertese dance appeals to the soul: it makes one thrill with emotion, it uplifts one, it conquers one; it has the essence of all great art: an immediate and far from exhausted appeal'.
MYTHS, LEGENDS AND STORIES
The origins of the Gilbertese
These varying traditions are extremely valuable for they help us to trace the route of the Gilbertese migrations. Tamana was populated by refugees from Ocean Island. Their chief, Naawai, led them there when they were chased from Ocean Island by Auriaria. Nui, of the the Ellice Islands, was inhabited by people from Tarawa, who arrived in two canoes, having lost their way at sea. They slaughtered the people of Nui, who must obviously have been fewer in number, and settled there themselves. These three islands are part of an older tradition in which one sees that the ancestors came not from the north but from the west. Some, who had forgotten where Mane lay, placed paradise up in the sky.
According to the myths and local beliefs which we have just examined, one thing is certain: the Gilbertese came from Samoa. Stories and traditions both confirm this. The date of the migration from Samoa can be determined from the genealogical lists to which the locals attach great importance and which they are trying to continue and maintain. Nowadays should you come across an exercise book in someone's hut, it will have written in it the names of the family ancestors, together with magic spells. The family trees of chiefs are the best known and the most complete. If we compare them then the arrival from Samoa dates back some twenty0five to thirty generations, that is, about seven hundred years. Also the Samoans can recall great wars at about the time when the Tongafiti, invaders 3who had been there for some six hundred years, were turned out of Samoa.
In making a resume of the history of the Tongafiti, we borrow from Mgr Darnand's work. The Samoan Islands had been inhabited for more than two thousand years, first being populated by a Polynesian migration from Indonesia. In the sixth century a second wave of migration took place, when the Tongafiti arrived. They were called this because later they settled in Tonga and Fiji. From Samoa they swarmed into the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, the Gambier Island and New Zealand. They landed at Upolu (Samoa), arriving in fifty canoes, and challenged the inhabitants, who were forced to seek refuge in the forest. Then there was a war following a pattern of ambush and partial truces. As they settled along the coast and were excellent sailors, the Tongafiti found it an easy task to colonize Tonga, Fiji and other islands. When the Proto-Samoans got the upper hand or were harrying them too much they called in these cousins to help them. The story about Tawatu te I-Matang must come from this era. Let us look now at a definitive account of the expulsion of these people who had dominated Samoa for six centuries.
While Samoa suffered under the yoke imposed by the Tonbgafiti, the king - Talaifeii - doubtless the Talakaifeiki mentioned in the family tree of Tui-Tonga, made a tour of the islands with his warriors. At Safotu on the northern coast of Samoa he had all the people assembled for the task of building a huge terrace, but there was a large rock in the way and no one knew how to shift it.
Tuna and Fata, sons of a very important and worthy man, Leatiogie, were ordered, one pain of death, to remove the obstacle. The two brothers, who certainly weren't lacking in ingenuity, placed two freshwater eels and an octopus caught on the reef, in the rain-soaked ground under the great rock. the creatures dug so well that the earth around the rock loosened and it could be moved. they tumbled it over, chanting 'Eels and octopus, tip this rock over'. When this task was accomplished our two heroes fled to Upolu, but not before they had stolen the hardwood anchor from the king's boat. they each made a knob-kerry out of the wood and swore to put an end to Samoa's slavery.
When the Tongans announced that they were coming to Aleipata there were preparations for celebrations in their honour. tuna and Fala went along, as they wanted to take part in the festivities. Their followers were already present in force, mingling with the crowd of Tongans and Samoans who were attending the games in the village meeting place. Our two heroes had hidden their clubs in the sand. Gradually they drew near, dancing as they did so. Everyone pricked up their ears, however, for this is what they were singing: 'Matamatame, matamatame' ... 'Shake your head, raise your foot, strike hard at the tongans'. they brushed aside the sand covering their weapons with their feet and fell upon the enemy in savage rage.
Once this signal was given, the Tongans were attacked on all sides and those who escaped being massacred fled at top speed, some along the south coast and the others along the northern coast to Upolu. the two fleeing groups, who were chased without respite, met at the westernnost point of the island, where their canoes were anchored. Standing on a rock in the sea, Talaifeii uttered those words of farewell, which are now famous in the Samoan islands: 'Malie toa, malietau' ... 'o brave warrior people, you have fought well. I will never again come here as an enemy, but only as a guest and friend; the Tongans will no longer make war against the Samoans.'
The Gilbertese have symbolized this defeat in their tale of the overturned tree: Tere moa te rara, Kai n tiku aba or Ieretia. They have retained two distinct memories: an idea of happiness and plenty on a large and very fertile island and also that of a family quarrel which destroyed the people's happiness and meant that some had to go through the risks of migration. After the lost paradise of Upolu, the barren little islands to the north must have seemed a harsh form of purgatory. It is true, however, that the sea round these islands is, if not more beautiful, at least less wild and in fact rather friendly, permitting as it does entry to vast sheltered lagoons well stocked with fish.
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Journey to the land of the dead
In the three days following death the soul stayed near the body. Every evening all the people made a procession round the village, beating the ground to frighten the soul and encourage it to leave the neighbourhood of the body. To the soul its body seemed to be full of fire and this decided it to set off on the journey to the land of shades. The soul went across the island and met Tabakea the ancestor.
'Hurry,' Tabakea told the soul. 'Go and find your ancestress, Nei Tituabine, who lives in Samoa at Matang. She will show you the way north.'
Then the soul set off for the beautiful land of Samoa to be told there the way to Matang in the north, going via Bouru, which was Naka's country. Thus the soul took up its journeying from island to island.
On Makin they show a place where the soul was seen on its way and where there are even traces of its passing in the sand. Before reaching Bouru the soul fell into the clutches of Nei Karamakuna, Naka's daughter. She sought the lines of tattooing belonging to the soul and snatching them out with her long shrew's nails swallowed them saying 'Go from Manra, the land of the living, to Bouru, the country of the dead'. If she found no tattoo marks then she snatched out the soul's eyes and ate them. Then the blind soul became a lost and wandering being, no longer able to reach its destination.
Others say that Nei Karamakuna eventually gave sight to the Spirits. Further on the soul came to Bouru, Neineaba and Matang. Naka was waiting there. Seated in front of his dwelling and working away at his net, he knew if souls were approaching, even if he had his back turned to Samoa and the land of Manra and he tried to take them one by one in the gesture he made as he handled the mesh. Others say that if you crept by on the left you avoided his grasping right hand. According to others, judgement was inevitable. Naka laid the pilgrim soul across his knees and searched its heart. If he found crimes buried in it, the guilty soul was sent to the place of endless nightmares, called Te Kai-n-Kamatene, that is a place where the soul was punished by having sleep constantly removed. Alternatively, the soul was impaled on stakes known as Kai-n-Kakeke; a third punishment was to be thrown to a being who would keep him writhing in agony in eternal misery: the Rekerua or Anou.
If Naka allowed the soul to go on its way it still meant staying three days with the grim net-maker. Beside his house there was a shallow pool and in it lived a solitary fish: te Mon. Near the pool was a tree: Tara-Kai-Maiu (here is the tree of life) which had only one nut on it. The soul lived on this never-ending food. Once the fish was eaten another appeared in the pool and if the coconut was picked then another grew in its place.
After these three days Naka said to the soul 'You've paid for the three days you spent near your body in Manra. Now go on your way to Bouru and Neineaba.' In these places lay the ultimate dwelling-place of the soul where, in the company of the other Spirits, Te Renga, a red-coloured food, was eaten.
Other traditional tales mention a different place fort the dead: Marira. On Butaritari and Makin they talk about shrewish women cannibals who barred the way the dead were following and terrified them with horrific grindings of their teeth. Here there is also mention of a clown who stop9ped them so they could admire his string games. In some islands they call Naka's country Mwaiku. All these place names have their significance as we will see later.
Hence we must also mention another tradition from Ocean Island, Tamana and Nui, where the paradise for the dead is Mane and Matennang and lies to the west. Turner, one of the early travellers in the Gilberts, said that on Tamana, when someone in the family died, the people played at heads or tails with a sort of pebble in order to know the fate of the soul which ran the risk of being crushed between two large rocks as it went over the horizon. Should this happen the soul would cease to exist but if the soul escaped it came to Mane, the land of plenty and of happiness. Further Gilbertese Myths, Legends And Stories
That original cell of society, the family, was already firmly established long before the arrival of Christianity, as far as one can judge from old stories and traditions. The woman was already the man's companion rather than his slave. Not expected to do hard manual labour, she had only to attend to household tasks and those jobs she could do without over-exhausting herself - such as going with her husband to help with certain types of fishing, helping him to build the house or prepare the babai pits. Far from being bought from her parents she came to her husband with her inheritance, less it must be admitted however than her brothers' share. An only daughter was powerful and much sought after. She not only inherited her father's land but also his knowledge and skill and sometimes his office as well. The canoe fleet would be organized and led by the navigator's daughter and it was the soothsayer's daughter who was consulted before undertaking any important enterprise.
Women without husbands were beneath consideration. They were referred to as the waste of their generation. Polygamy was rare. Even the chief recognized one woman only as wife, though others might be tolerated around him. Most frequently these extra women were the sisters of the chief's wife. Every husband also acquired a certain authority over women related to him, such as a brother's widow. The one thing that was harmful to the dignity and honour of the family was slavery. There are no traces of this except in recent times on some islands where particular families appropriated all the land and the kingship. the famous warrior Auriaria, later a god, had four wives and wanted a rich heiress from Tarawa. He could only obtain her on one condition: that he send back his little harem. The Polynesian Achilles had to do just that. Only after four journeys to take back his consorts to Abaiang, Maiana, Marakei and Nabanaba (an island far away to the west) did he see his wishes granted. The family and clan watched to see that a woman was well treated and the husband who behaved brutally knew just whom he would have to face.
Divorce isn't something simple or given to fantasy. Things can be arranged by mutual consent with some tact, but common sense and correct behaviour exact the maintaining of a great respect for one's spouse. to do otherwise can be gravely inconvenient. This was in fact the cause of the last war on Maiana. Tataua sent back his wife Nei Tarua, who was disfigured by a bad eye. Her mother wasn't pleased about this and got the relations together. A fight broke out. It wasn't at all like the fine stories where good always wins. Nei Tarua saw her husband defeated and also her mother was killed in the brawl.
Nowadays the law makes provision for divorce. 'This is the main cause of disagreement between the Government and the separation are considered sufficient reason for breaking the marital ties. Too many of the less firm Catholics use this to their advantage. Many of them then go on the desert their faith. To ease their conscience they then seek refuge in a religion which will not condemn their conduct. As far as divorce is concerned the Protestants are generous and divorced people will not be made to feel uneasy or embarrassed in their churches. Adultery is punished by three months in prison. This penalty is preferable to three years of widowerhood. Some who don't find a willing woman quickly enough will quite happily slander themselves wrongly. At the very time this is being written a misdemeanour. His wife, suspecting his infidelity, took the matter to the judge and the man admitt4ed his guilt. His supposed mistress stoutly denied her part in the matter and the whole village thought her innocent. The man insisted on his guilt so as to obtain a divorce as quickly as possible and no doubt thinking that 6the young girl so compromised would easily become his prey! The judge was delighted to find at last an accused person who so readily admitted his guilt and, believing the man's word, put him and the young girl in prison. The case would have been even better and a third nearer to justice if the jealous wife had b3een added to the collection of prisoners.
Adoption is another bane which breaks natural family ties, this time between parents and children. You can find instances where parents with only one child will hand it over to other members of the family or to some friends and then replace their own child with an adopted one. What an odd exchange of presents to uphold a friendship! Once weaned, some children are separated from their parents like this so that they hardly know them and are not likely to shed many tears on their death. These adopted children are often badly brought up: all their whims are allowed, for fear of annoying the natural parents, to whom the child might complain. Often adoption means that the child loses its faith if it leaves a Catholic household. This may mean a loss of faith for parents too, for many of them have not the strength to refuse a child to non-believers, as Christian rules and the missionary ask them to do. So, out of spite or through sheer apathy they let their faith lapse or even deny it completely. Protestant children who are adopted by Catholics don't really compensate for this loss either, for one can never really be sure of them and would hesitate to baptize them.
As the adopted child usually inherits land, adoption is a useful support for large families, but it has serious moral disadvantages. Formerly, the system had the advantage of extending alliances and increasing the numbers of those who would defend the family and clan.
Each island is cut up into parcels of land because of inheritances. There isn't a single piece of land that has no owner. An average sized island such as Abemama has about two thousand plots of land which take in the whole breadth and length of the island. On average each piece of land is eighteen metres wide by seven hundred metres long. Tabiteuea is ten times more cut up into parcels of land. Sometimes even the babai pits themselves ar3e shared and may have a different owner from the one who has the surrounding land. this division of land dates from very early times. Nor is there any idea of communism. Anyone who plants a tree claims it as his. Probably this was the earliest form of title deed to possession.
Gilbertese law is fairly8 complex but less difficult to establish than actual facts. When it was established, the government found the situation greatly entangled by the aftermath of recent wars whose aim was the plundering of the defeated people. They decided not to become involved in old feuds. Every actual owner of property was protected by a law which in itself was carefully guarded. There was no new legislation. Each island was to sort out such matters as property according to its own tradition. Later, however, a commission was set up to regulate land matters. The commission had a hard task for your Gilbertese will happily take up his knife on behalf of his land or his woman.
On Makin and Butaritari there were three laws which could affect a piece of land: that for the king, that for the chief and that for the ordinary man who worked for the other two. After some friendly discussion it 3was decided that the royal family should take one quarter of the land and the other three quarters should be left to the chief and the ordinary labourer (we might think of him as a serf) who would produce copra and pay tax in turn, each paying for one year.
The babai pits were shared out, for in this case it was only fair that the person doing the work should be able to eat the results of his labours. Thus tenant farming was abolished and the workers were co-owners with the nobility. The problem of clearing, planting and improving the land, however, was never really tackled during this period. The king and his family, owning a quarter of the island as they did, were never really able to enjoy their wealth because of their lack of training in hard work and because of the shortage of workers.
On Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka the land was divided into strips. Each parcel of land had two fixed borders on the edge of the lagoon, but how did these two lines which set off from a narrow base line manage to link up with another two setting off from the ocean side and going through seven or eight hundred meters of brush, pits and hillocks? This was quite a mystery and very few landowners could give a clear answer. Abemama had been conquered ten generations previously by the Beru warriors and they had shared out the land as they wished. This was complicated by various acts of cunning and deeds of violence. More wars followed, culminating in the establishment of the monarchy. The defeated had to give up their lands. Those not keen to flee or to die became slaves of the chiefs or of the king. His Majesty's most favoured saying was: 'Only lend to the rich'. As for the people, they gave to him and from 1860 to 1891 the island was dominated by the most remarkable tyrant: Tem Binoka. His subjects really had to grovel, whether it was to attract his goodwill or deflect his anger. When the king did them the honour of adopting a son or daughter - and this happened frequently - a piece of their land went with the child. The slaves had to feed the court and the harem with a smile on their lips and no hint of moodiness - or risk being shot. If the king so wished it he would take away someone's land. Again, of a woman became obstinate and left her husband's house, naming the king or one of his adopted sons as the reason, the husband would have to give a piece of land to the royal family if he wanted his runaway wife back. Should anyone die leaving no near relation then the king inherited the estate. In any quarrel the first person to give a piece of land to the king could be certain of being in the right. Fear and servility were well on the way to destroying a noble race when Britain set up its protectorate in the Gilberts. The material and moral effects of such slavery have not yet completely disappeared on these three islands where the population is only now beginning to increase after a quite unusual drop. On Kuria and Aranuka the royal family owned half the land and on Abemama one quarter.
Nowadays the former slaves are farmers but their slave mentality has not yet quite disappeared. Although they are wealthier and more comfortably set up than most of the Gilbertese they rarely marry except among themselves and they still feel humiliated by the memory of once being in an inferior state to their more independent countrymen. Throughout the rest of the Gilberts, whether richer or poorer, everyone owns land. The person who has no babai pit and not even a few coconut trees is rare indeed.
Usually the head of the family, the father, shares out his land before his death. Here he enjoys a great freedom of choice. Usually, he favours his eldest son and then the other boys, but the girls also have their share. When it is the children's turn to share out their land they do about the same thing. If someone dies without children then a brother, a sister or nephews will inherit.
Custom, supported by law, makes sure that a man leaves some land to his illegitimate child. In former times, rape, murder, adultery and theft could be compensated for by the handing over of some land or a canoe, if the guilty person had a chance of saving his skin. The same system was applied if an engagement was broken off after the relationship had been consummated.
Often an adopted child received a piece of land. To make a present of some land to friends was a rather delicate matter. The family would oppose such an idea. Anyone who took care of an old person, looked after someone sick - or ever the bonesetter who put bones in place - could be rewarded by a gift of land.
To protect the gentle local person with his lack of foresight against the greed of other more cunning races, the government had to forbid the sale of land to foreigners. Traders and missionaries may only rent pieces of land just big enough for their needs in the way of building and these tenures may not last longer than ninety-nine years. There is no room for colonials. Furthermore, with the economic crisis and the drop in the copra price, no planter may settle in the Gilberts.
If they continue to be protected the Gilbertese people have a chance of surviving. There is little risk of their being ousted from their islands; their barren sands make any such effort no real threat to them. When the rest of Oceania has been taken over by the white or yellow hordes these low islands will save the last of the Polynesian race.
We may also take it that the era of the free traders - a flourishing business in the islands between 1860 and 1930 - is at an end. The new trading posts at the disposal of the commercial companies and the government will in future be run by half-breeds or by locals who are quite happy with a less important treatment.
What does his land bring to the Gilbertese other than the food he gets from it? Only a very lean profit. On average the colony exports six thousand tons of copra per year. From this total must be deducted the two thousand tons from the plantations on Fanning and Washington, five hundred tons from the Ellice and five hundred and two tons (a seventh) taken away as a form of tax by the government. Then share out the price for three thousand tons among twenty-e9ght thousand Gilbertese. At 5 pounds sterling per ton (the price in June 1938) the per capita income each year is less than eleven Australian shillings (about a dozen pre-war francs). The sharing out of wealth, however, is not equal. Some heavily populated islands, especially in the south, only have about half this average. Poverty is a hard fact of life - one might even say abject misery. A little money comes into these islands through the young people who go off to work for the phosphate company on Ocean Island.
Apart from his land the average Gilbertese owns few things. The houses are of no great value. They fall into disrepair quickly and are just as speedily rebuilt. Something more valuable is the canoe, though somewhat neglected on a few islands. A trunk, an axe, a cooking pot - though not always - a few buckets, a mosquito net, mats, a few pieces of material - there you have all his wealth. Including a small amount of provisions, a single canoe would carry a family and all its riches. To own a bicycle or a sewing-machine brings such a flock of borrowers round and causes so many annoyances that those considered to be happy rich people would quite happily break the lot! With such sparse resources, it is quite useless to think of saving. The Gilbertese copies the birds along the shore, who can count on low tide every twelve hours. When his stock of fish is exhausted off he goes fishing; if he needs a coconut then he takes a walk round his trees; if he's hungry then he digs up a piece of babai. If there's to be a big feast or celebration then he makes up a sack of copra which is weighed on Saturday. The price from this will buy material for a dress that his wife sews by lamplight so she can wear it for the first time the next day! It even happens that Mass is missed because the housewife only got the inspiration to wash the Sunday lava-lava in the middle of the night.
Certainly the Gilbertese has some excuse for his carefree attitude. There are no seasons to negotiate his work; no winter to force him to lay in a store. Planting babai, catching fish, making up a sack of copra, are all tasks which can be done tomorrow ... or in a month. Only immediate hunger has an effect on him. It is difficult for him to make provision - or else things aren't right - or he doesn't know how to set about it. A whole pig is eaten up in three days. Of course all the family will be there - but who can say where all the chunks of meat went. These fine animals are also most often sacrificed on feast days or for a birth or marriage.
It's useless to ask whether the Gilbertese is lazy. He has no idea about making up his mind or organizing his life. He only bows to what is necessary or to custom. In fact he is like a child in that he needs constant direction and instructions. The renewing of thatching has become a government task, for l3ft to himself the Gilbertese would be quite happy with a hut or dugout where he would sleep with his feet sticking out. Most definitely he is not attracted by any luxury which calls for any effort from him. He does essential tasks in as short a time as creation. Nevertheless, if subjected to discipline, the Gilbertese doesn't make a bad soldier. Removed from his daydreams he makes a good worker. The phosphate company on Ocean Island, which employs hundreds of workers, has no complaint about their output. Vigour, intelligence, adaptability, skill: they display all these qualities. They need to be led with a smile, however. The Gilbertese are proud people; nagging makes them revolt.
They are all about equal in terms of poverty but they have an elegant way of making exchanges between themselves. They don't buy things - they ask for them. 'I butiko', give it to me, please - is a magic word. No Gilbertese can resist it. For good or for bad he gives way to it, hardening his heart and smiling while he parts with his goods. Tradition asks it of him but also authorizes a similar revenge for him, so that one cannot be sure of the morals of such liberal gestures. Aren't these presents a form of disguised loan? The word skinflint is one of the worst insults in the Gilbertese language. To know how to make use of the bubuti system is an art. A husband, knife in hand, was chasing his wife. Brother E., summoned by the shrieks, ran to interrupt the chase. Did he take hold of the angry husband? By no means. He made a little bow and, smiling amicably, asked for the man's knife. Unable to resist, the man let his knife be taken - the worst had worked its magic.
Life in the islands is not unhappy, yet men become bored. Your Gilbertese finds it difficult to acquire a taste for his work. He has only one thought: to rid himself of it as quickly as possible since, for him, it is perpetual forced labour. He puts off work that has to be done to the last possible moment and then he flings himself into it. This inordinate wildness prevents him from obtaining the healthy pleasure that come of attention to a task. His lack of foresight, carelessness and habit of following his instincts and whims, meant that it is a terrible effort for him every time he decides to carry out some reasonable piece of work. Of course he has some excuses for this idleness; his very limited needs, a poor education, the climate; but the thing that most often takes him away from work is his passion for entertainment. He flings himself into this in a frenzied way, even forgetting to eat and drink. He can spend days and nights absorbed in some game and would doubtless keep at it for weeks and months on end, if, as now happens, the police didn't intervene. The forms of entertainment which attract him most are cards and dancing.
One striking thing about entertainment among the Gilbertese is the moderate behaviour of children and the excesses of the adults. If left to themselves the little Gilbertese don't seem to want to do anything. They have a very poor imagination when it comes to amusing themselves. As soon as school is over you would say you had a tribe of little old men and women; their first thought is to lie down on a mat and they have to be chased from it. European games only amuse them briefly. Obviously the climate doesn't lend itself to energetic activities but even a game of billiards is too much for them. They prefer to watch. If the young people have friends with them then they sit among the old men to watch. Yet, if he wishes, the Gilbertese soon excels at sport. He has supple legs and uses his hands well. Nor does he lack assurance. When he is stung to co something then he uses his head. Several Gilbertese are very good indeed at draughts, though chess is not popular. Card games really interest them - but it is for gain. When a card player has no money left then he puts in bottles of molasses, pieces of babai and bid on the cards put down. They bet on who has the highest cards and lay them down. It's as simple and silly as can be - a game of luck and brazen cheek. Some hold fellow eventually wins - not just the game but also the cash. It's a form of Gilbert4eswe roulette and the government forbids it. Then they go off into the bush to play but if the police make too many raids then their interest turns to something else - usually to dancing.
From time to time they hold canoe races - the makei - toy canoes, very well balanced which have to sail across the bay by themselves. This is a man's game and so are the kite-flying contests. They use a single wing with a span of four to six metres, copying the frigate bird's wings. They have four hundred metres of string to fly them from. The whole village gathers to watch this flock u in the blue afternoon sky.
Then there is the craze for cock-fighting, or batua. The batua (puffer fish) is intrepid though no longer than a thumb and it flashes towards its rival very speedily. The fight is followed in a bowl, each fish having its owner and supporters. This sport comes from very distant times, long before the cock ever crow3ed in the islands. According to old stories, the chiefs had men whose special task was to choose and train the batua.
In olden times wrestling and boxing was practised. The competitors had extremely hard gloves made out of woven rope. They had to undergo a long and severe training in which magic played a large part. Thee were even those who remained old bachelors so that they could keep all their energy for the championship. It seems that they went more for sideways swipes or bludgeoning blows than straightforward hits, aiming more for the head than the jaw. The champions issued challenges to all the islands.
A hundred and fifty years ago Ueaititi of Tarawa challenged Utimawa from Abemama. The encounter took place half way between the two, on Maiana. Utimawa marched towards his opponent, his arms held up by two concubines whose heads only came up to his armpits. His body was so vast that two men could hide behind him. On the way to the fight, he pulled off a pandanus branch with one mighty tug. His opponent was also a pandanus branch with one mighty tug His opponent was also a good size and didn't seem particularly intimidated by Utimawa.
The people in olden days were familiar with a ball game, using an enormous heavy ball that was kicked towards a goal or thrown with a flick of the wrist, as is done nowadays. the opposite team lost a point every time that the ball thrown to them touched the ground. One unusual game is kabane. Is it in fact played anywhere else? It copies the chase and capture of a frigate bird. A piece of the valve from giant clam, polished and egg-shaped, is tied on to the end of a long line. Two long feathers fastened together and representing the bird are set up on the end of a pole to float in the air. the player has to throw his clam-stone over these, so that as the line falls back it catches the feathers. this is what happens to the frigate bird when it flies too low to take the bait left to tempt it. The line is engaged in its wing and when this is pulled, down comes the bird to earth. chances to indulge in this form of hunting are quite rare. Most often the bird is caught by its foot while it dozes in a coconut tree. The game kabane has periods of popularity throughout the Gilberts, however.
The Gilbertese have no acquaintance with the bow or the sling. As for water sports, one of their more popular activities is karibaba (surfing). They go out to catch a large breaker, near the reef. Then, lying ace down on a piece of wood, they are carried to the shore. The danger lies in falling off, of being tumbled on the shingle and emerging grazed and bloodily marked - not to mention the risk of swallowing a very efficacious purge in the form of sea-water! The people in bygone days didn't have much in the way of ornaments. Nowadays there is even less to brighten people up. the men have given up their tattoos and long hair styles and the dancers no longer wear the heavy whale's tooth belt, signifying a man of some importance. they have given up their necklaces of human teeth (usually the canines) and their two sashes of dolphin's teeth as well as the four round shells on their arms. it seems that the woman has always been less splendidly garbed than the man. He is still very much the preening cockerel in the dances, but is tending to be less so. He now wears a garland of freshly picked flowers, a thin necklace and a finely woven mat around his body. This is held up by a belt made of hair. He looks nimble and unrestricted.
The woman dresses up in almost the same way. A grass skirt is essential for her, though, and it must be darkened with smoke from scented plants and anointed with perfumed oil. the scent and the rustle of the skit must both carry as far as possible, and so that it may be an exciting garment witchcraft is used, thus enabling the skirt to be rubbed against the skin of a host of old devils. to complete this unappreciated symbolism, the woman dancer ties round her middle a sort of black snake, in fact a belt made out of bits of a husk of nuts, round like coins and threaded together. With their hair and skin shining with scented oil,, a little magic necklace apiece, our man and woman are ready to attack the dance with positively fiendish pace and liveliness.
At this point we need to agree on terms. What are we going to call what we are going to talk about? Is it chorus, dance, ballet or lyric drama? In fact it is a mixture of all these. There are no musical instruments however. A box or a tin-plate which someone hits is sufficient to beat out the rhythm. The words hardly matter as any poetry is lost. The noise consists of old songs whose meaning escapes us, obscure modern chants, bits of Marshallese, Ellice or Samoan which isn't comprehensible - in fact murdered! This produces a wild mournful sort of music which offers little to the soul. Nevertheless, every human animal is moved by the poses and gestures, the frustrated attempt to take off, the furious rhythm, loud moaning noises and disturbing atmosphere offered by a half-naked crowd of dancers smelling of oil and various scents.
Let us look at a dance in the big maneaba of Abemama. Two large lamps suspended from the rafters light up the crowd. The dancers are standing in the garb previously described, in a semicircle. Whether they are young men with well-filled frames or grown men whose bodies are well-set and gleaming, they certainly don't lack a primitive beauty. Behind them, not so organized and neat, stand the woman. Slowly, on low notes, the singing begins ... then the pitch goes up and the pace speeds up too. Gradually the dancers warm up. At first they simply move their feet on the spot, waving their arms to follow the rhythm. They slap their hands on their bare chests, or on the dancing-mats covering their thighs. For the time being the women and children don't imitate them, but they are the ones who sing with most abandon and who speed up the rhythm. Dancing on the spot and clapping their hands they urge the dancers to a great paroxysm of movement. Nerves are tense, faces contorted and the voices become wild while eyes grow haggard. The first time you see such a performance you feel really afraid. You might easily think these are madmen or demons who are about to leap on the crowd and devour them. Now the dancing is no longer on the spot; the semicircle advances and retreats and then in an even more frenzied burst the finale is reached. There is such tremendous moral and physical tension that it seems it must end in madness or death. Such is a flood of passion is let loose and it is so infectious that even a man of another race has difficulty in calming his nerves and can hardly prevent himself from quivering in ecstasy with the rest of the audience and the dancers.
This is what Mrs R. L. Stevenson felt when she saw dancing on Butaritari: "I became hot and cold, tears welled from my eyes, my head was spinning and I had an irresistible urge to join the dancers'. She noticed 'bodies swaying together to the rhythm like a filed of corn in the wind'.
R. L. Stevenson himself wrote: 'Of all they call dance in the Pacific, the performance I saw on Butaritari was easily the best ... Gilbertese dance appeals to the soul: it makes one thrill with emot8ion, it uplifts one, it conquers one; it has the essence of all great art: an immediate and far from exhausted appeal'.
Mrs Stevenson didn't come across any sign whatsoever of the indecency which tends to spoil dances from the eastern islands.
This cannot be said of all dances, however. In fact the government had had to ban some of them. Certainly it is true that nowadays the worst are brought in from other island groups. Compared to our European dances they are at the same time much more abandoned and less lewd. The man and woman rarely make any contact. Several dances are performed while sitting, furthermore. As far as the Gilbertese are concerned, dancing is done particularly with the arms, and the orator who gestures as he speaks is looked upon as a sort of dancer. Nor are the women always at the back. They like to be seen and admired, dancing in the front row in their simple costume. For the missionaries these dances pose a somewhat complex moral problem. Obviously we are faced here with the national pastime, the only one which really interests all the Gilbertese and one in which even the spectator plays his part. Everyone joins in, at least in the singing. Even little children are brought up to it. The whole music and poetry of their race come to them through the dance.
If only the Gilbertese could maintain some balance about it, the pastime could be tolerated, but he flings himself into it with frenzied enthusiasm to the point where he is more brute than human being - virtually to the borders of sanity! If obsessed by dancing he forgets all about eating and drinking and his duty to his family. thus the government has had to intervene to control dance meetings. On some islands, anyway, dancing is still firmly linked to magic practices. As far as the intellectual and moral progress of the people is concerned, dancing offers little.
The Samoans are supposedly the proudest, the most formal and the most polite of Pacific peoples. This is somewhat exaggerated, though. The Gilbertese don't go as far as this but they are not dissimilar.
The adulation afforded to the king of Abemama led to the introduction of particular customs. In public feasts the king's share was placed on every subject's head as a sign of homage and being his vassal and thus made a tour of the maneaba. Then they rubbed any food that was being argued about on the king's feet which were well covered with oil. sometimes the people even chewed up mouthfuls of food for the king or the princes. Anyone going in front of them bent double and this custom has been kept for important people or if you want to pass in front of anyone who sitting. The old men watched over matters of etiquette. Nothing must be suspended from the rafters of the maneaba; there must be no noise and to turning of one's back to the company. Nor should you interrupt old people and cut them short. A speaker stood up with his fly-whisk in his hand. Each family had a special place in the maneaba and an inherited function in any ceremonies.
The sharing out of food followed a very strict system of priority. The Gilbertese are extremely sensitive in such matters. Certainly the chiefs tried to be known for their politeness and genial nature, but they expected to be held in some esteem. They would forgive a blow rather more easily than an insult. Those Europeans who look upon the local people as yokels are making a big mistake. They are hated and scorned in return; considered as boors and rough clodhoppers. they say that the massacre of Laperouse's sailors at Tutuila was because of this psychologically erroneous attitude. Mgr Leray told the story of a Butaritari chief who, scantily garbed in a grass skirt, was mocked and treated rudely by a sea captain who judged people by their appearance. When the chief got back to land he took two guns and waited for the first ship's launch to arrive. He claimed two victims from its crew. Politeness may not apply here but the Gilbertese are certainly charitable!
You should see how indignantly too they treat the European who pushes his way past people or who or who steps over their outstretched legs. It is true, on the other hand, that the Gilbertese pays no attention to the use of doorways and passages. He flops down in the first free space and doesn't see that he is hindering people's easy movement.
Anything light-hearted or in the way of a joke isn't taken too well. The present generation have a rather less tragic view of things but the old people don't jest where dignity is concerned. On Maundy Thursday on Tarawa Mgr Leray didn't forget to observe the rite of washing feet. He had no difficulty in rounding up twelve poor people, for he gave each of them a biscuit - the sort that really takes some chewing. One old fellow came down from the choir holding his biscuit and wondering what to do with it. One woman, ready for a joke, saw his embarrassment and indicated to him that he should bite into it. When he tried, of course there was an outburst of laughter. The poor old man flung his biscuit away and took off through the village, looking round now and then to make sure if he was being followed. His mind was greatly disturbed. Should he go and hang himself - or just go back to his village and try to live with this dishonour? one of the old Spirits and all the customs of his forefathers urged him towards hanging himself; his guardian angel and his new beliefs worked to bring him back to the church. To gain some breathing space in this turmoil, the old fellow sat down when he reached the end of the village. Then help came: someone to lead back the strayed sheep. This man did a good job and chose his words well, but the old man stayed where he was. He wouldn't move until the guilty woman came herself to apologize and to lead him back to his place in church with all due respect and honour, in front of all the other people.
One very sacred thing for the Gilbertese is the head. 'Watch it, or I'll smack your head!' This is a supreme insult. There's no need for an actual blow - the words are enough and would lead to an immediate duel. to accept something passed over the host's head, even a dangling piece of string, is quite intolerable. Children are even ashamed when the missionary puts his hand on their heads. To place one's hand on an old man's head would be a near scandal. Nor must you use the same word to indicate a man's head and the head of any animal that is food for the table. On Kuria one man who in other ways was very pleasant and open-natured obstinately refused to be measured by the catechist. When he was scolded by the missionary he eventually allowed his measurements to be taken - but only when it was done by the European. Modesty of this nature must have come about. 'If you kill me, make sure to look after my head properly', one warrior used to say to the other. The maneaba were at one time decorated with the skulls of the losers and on voyages of migration a man would take his father's skull in his canoe.
A seafaring race
We might call the Micronesians amphibians: they always have one foot in the water... In this they resemble sea birds. Modern life has rather clipped their wings, so to speak, but they take to the sea with all the enthusiasm of their ancestors, who were far more adventurous than Ulysses' companions. think of the Mediterranean; they only voyaged on a lake, whereas the Polynesians struggled against a vast ocean.
The older Gilbertese have actually seen the last ships in their country's fleet; the war canoes, some more than thirty metres long, which often made the voyage to Samoa (twelve hundred miles away) and sailed to other distant islands difficult to identify with certainty. There is no attempt here to pass off the Gilbertese as the best sailors in the Pacific. For one thing, they lacked wood and had very poor tools. They are, however, part of the Polynesian race that peopled the most isolated island groups in Oceania. Like the Polynesians, the Gilbertese crossed vast wastes of water and to do so they had to overcome their own fear, cowardice and laziness.
The aim of their expeditions was not only bloodshed, rape and plunder. They also visited relations or distant friends. They sailed for pleasure, for glory and in the hopes of coming back full of fine tales. The human heart is never simple; all sorts of driving forces affect it. Nor is the Polynesian a savage creature; he has a splendid physique and a lively spirit. How he admires the majestic flight of the frigate bird ... and sometimes, like the frigate, he lets the wind carry him.
Nor were these early people like careless children. They had a knowledge of navigation which has partly disappeared nowadays. Long voyages were only undertaken in the good season, towards June, when Rimwimata (Antares, the red star of Scorpio) appeared in the sky after sunset. In practice, from May to November is the time for steady winds, more gentle currents and less rain. Remember that the pandanus leaf sails don't take to rain very well. Towards December, when Nei 'Auti (the Pleiades) replaces Antares in the sky, it's better not to venture too far from port. One is less sure of the weather and there is the danger of sudden westerly winds. During the good season there are weeks which are particularly favourable for sailing. They can be detected from certain stars in the sky, from the moon's phases or by other less remote signs - such as the scorpion or a particular kind of mollusc which only leave their respective hiding-places in the weather.
The stars point out directions. Each island is situated under a particular star and this instinct for direction-finding is well developed in the Gilbertese. The names of the cardinal points come readily to his lips. Maneabas are built to lie north-south. The course of the stars is measured as if seen between the lines of the rafters in the maneaba roof, by someone sitting below in the centre. The arch of the night sky represented thus would be eight degrees. Each degree is further subdivided into another four and each one has a name. this is a precise enough system to be able to know the time and the seasons from it.
It is quite easy to miss a low-lying island. From a canoe you don't begin to see the tops of the palms until you are within about twenty kilometres of land. The presence of land can be revealed, however, much earlier by less obvious signs. To begin with there are the birds, if one knows how to interpret their flight habits. Then there are the clouds whose base reflects the greenery of the palm forest or the whiteness of the shore at low tide. Further away one can still see a shimmering in the air caused by evaporation from the lagoons, or you notice a circumflex shaped wisp of cloud over the island. This is formed by the rising warm air which pushes up the cloud over the middle of the land mass and leaves thinner cloud trailing over the island's ends. On a rainy night the waves should be carefully observed. Their direction and their movement are different in the open sea between the islands and in the shallows as one nears land.
The Marshallese in particular are well know for their ability to navigate in overcast weather.
If neither the sky nor the sea give any helpful signs then there is one last resort for the navigator: magic. He can try to find the harbour he's looking for through divination. When setting off on a voyage he takes with him his ancestors' skulls, a palm-frond and some protective coconuts. He has to defend himself against the evil Spirits and the cunning of the enemies. There are plenty of dangers too. There are whales, sharks and swordfish which may crash against the frail sides of the canoe though sheer carelessness. Then there are whirlpools, whirlwinds and reefs - so many deceptive perils. It also makes sense to be wary of the porpoise - those big friendly creatures who show their amiable attitude by performing dangerous leaps, far too close to the sailor. They are kept at a safe distance when one points a stick at them and says: 'Who said your name? My lord porpoise you are sneezing. All the way from the depths of your territory, from the bottom of the sea. Baa! Look at what I give you ... Baa! here are the splendours of the sky, the sun and the moon ... you are sneezing ... your name has been spoken .. ehee!'
Each enemy must be met with its own particular spell. In this way the lone sailor can remain hopeful in a very uncertain situation. those who are lost at sea might have been ignorant or not pious enough - who knows? Spells cast by enemies rain down like arrows and how can one parry these attacks? Then there are all the Spirits (Anti) in the sky, on land and below the waves. It's hardly surprising that even the most careful sailor may be beaten. Such a possibility must just be accepted.
Any Gilbertese person who makes even the slightest discovery keeps it from being passed on as he wants to get as much honour and profit for himself from it as he can. Thus all knowledge was kept secret, whether it was to do with magic, medical remedies or bait for some fish or other. Knowledge about sailing was handed on from father to son and if there was no male heir then the daughters would even inherit the skill.
A woman's revenge
In about 1780 the people of Tarawa mounted an attack against Abemama and were beaten. To be really sure of victory the people of Abemama felt they must carry on the war in Tarawa (seventy miles away). There were three main leaders of these sorties: a general, a soothsayer and a navigator. This time the navigator was a woman, Baintabu, and she led the fleet. At first everything went well, Instead of meeting a bombardment from throwing spears, The Abemama warriors were presented with pieces of babai, green coconuts and fish done to a turn. There was feasting and dancing and presents were made or ornaments, mats and all sorts of things. When the sharing out was done, instead of being included with the leaders, Baintabu, a mere woman, was left out.
Did she burst into tears and did she go from complaints to recriminations? The other leaders, well-fed and heaped up with gifts, took no notice and the injustice was not righted.
On the voyage back to Abemama they were sailing against the prevailing east wind and they had to tack. The land disappeared from sight and night came on. The men at the steering oar of each canoe followed the leading one. Suddenly Baintabu was important again. At this time however, she was not in good form. She seemed to be asleep, stretched out on a mat in her canoe. All day they had sailed in the same direction without altering the sail and this was rather strange. Every time they tried to question the woman she didn't even lift her head but said 'Go on'. Obviously she was sulking. They knew why she was annoyed. Perhaps she was going back on her trust? Eventually this became so clear that, towards nightfall, the exasperated men picked u Baintabu and her mat and flung her into the sea. All the canoes went by and then the last one came along. In the dusk the sailors saw something floating. It was a mat. As they drew nearer they saw someone swimming. They fished the person out and saw it was Baintabu. She thanked them ... she had fallen into the sea by accident ... and now they had saved her.
Now was a good time to slow down a little. The other canoes were out of sight. Never mind: they would find them in the morning. They must change direction. The sail was shifted in the other end of the canoe; Baintabu consulted the stars, gave her orders and lay down again, this time looking up at the sky. They tacked all night without meeting the other canoes and nor did they see them in the morning. They spent a lonely and miserable time for several days and then at last an island came into view. It was Abemama. Not another canoe came back. They waited for them but never saw them again. What did Baintabu feel that night as she heard the wails of the mothers and widows whose misery was caused because she had taken her revenge all too well?
There were other similar tragedies when there was a happy departure for some Cythera or Eldorado that ended with the luckless mariners meeting death in a shark's jaws or as food for cannibals in Santa Cruz or the Solomons. There is very little record of such victims as the Gilbertese don't like to dwell on their disasters. Successful voyages are more remembered. Not every Gilbertese Ulysses has a Homer to record his exploits, but if he leaves behind a son like Telemachus, then perhaps some of his history survives through his descendants.
Building a canoe
The Gilbertese may see their knowledge of how to make long voyages vanishing, but they have certainly lost none of their skill in canoe-building. They haven't stopped perfecting the light canoes they use for fishing or for racing. The longest of these everyday canoes is rarely more than twelve meters. On some islands they have begun building the big seagoing canoes again. There is one in Utiroa village on Tabiteuea and it is 24, 40 metres long and 2.20 metres high.
In the Pacific there are three types of canoe: the twin hulled one, the canoe with two outriggers and the canoe that has only one outrigger. This last is the type used by the Gilbertese though they have seen other types in Samoa.
Do not think of the Gilbertese canoe as a large hollowed-out tree trunk. There are no large trees and the canoes are built of finely linked planks. The keel is in three sections, the main piece slightly incurved and the two ends turned up. If you look from one end of a canoe under construction, you will see that there is a lopsided effect. The outrigger side (always windward) curves more. This gives the man at the helm quite a lot of help in steering the canoe and going about. In another style of canoe, known as Tongan, the construction is symmetrical. This difference leads to a lot of competition in races, to see which will do better.
Even when they built the old war canoes, the early canoe-builders used bits of plank no longer than a couple of metres. Nowadays, a lot of American red pine is generally used. The planks run one piece from stern to bows. The canoe is made much stronger in this way. there is a great deal of study of the canoe. Your local is no great calculator, but he has a keenly observant eye and his experience suggests a whole host of improvements to him. attempts at emulation keep him awake. He looks for more elegance of line and particularly more speed, so that he can shine in canoe races. Tradition and progress together make an effective method of improving canoes. It is in fact difficult to imagine anything of its type that a lighter, more responsive to handling or swifter, than the Gilbertese racing canoe.
Under sail, the lean light canoe doesn't in itself maintain balance. It gets this from the outrigger, which is formed from a tree trunk worked into a cigar shape and tied to the canoe by three booms - or five at the most in the large early canoes. The outrigger acts as a counter weight to the sail which must always be on the other side of the canoe from it. To go about, the sail is carried from one end of the canoe to the other - this is why the canoe has an identical prow at either end. The steering oar is made of a long piece of wood. As for the outrigger, it must be neither too light nor too heavy and it is usually made from logs which have been washed up on the shore. there are two ways in which a canoe may capsize: firstly if there is too much weight on the outrigger side and secondly if the outrigger rises high in the air if there is too much wind in the sail. If it is gusty then the sailor has to be very careful about watching the trim of the canoe and must be ready to let go the sheet in time. If the canoe does go over the damage isn't too bad anyway. Good sailors know how to right the craft, unless the outrigger is too big. Out in the open sea this isn't pleasant and at night it becomes dangerous because of sharks.
The sail is triangular in shape and held up by two yards - one horizontal and the other vertical. A mast leans to join the upright yard and the top of this mast is fixed to the outrigger by a shroud. In small canoes the sail has only these two supports. The weight of the sail against that of the outrigger maintains the balance of this flexible supporting mast and if the wind suddenly veers then mast and sail swing over to the outrigger side. This is the classic form of mishap which usually means nothing worse than a soaked sail. A man standing on the canoe can raise the mast and the sail at the same time. In large canoes the mast is held up by two stays and one shroud to the outrigger.
In olden days the big canoes were owned by a clan or family; by a village or by a chief. Their construction was too much for one individual to undertake. Recently the people of Tabiteuea have tried to build such canoes in their villages. All the material is imported. Competition in canoe races causes such trouble, however, that the government has had to stop this activity which might have led to war.
The Gilbertese is not yet sufficiently master of himself to be a real sportsman as the English think of such a person. He cheats and is too easily made angry, so that his pleasure from the race is spoiled. Nevertheless he is worthy of emulation, in the race is spoiled. Nevertheless he is worthy of emulation, in that his outrigger canoe can go at great speed. In a good wind it can go as fast as thirty to thirty-five kilometres per hour. The Gilbertese also handles his canoe with great skill. Anyone who has built his own canoe, who often fishes in it using a drag-net and who races with it, becomes one with it, rather like a rider and his horse. He loves and appreciates his canoe as if it were alive. Apart from its help in bringing in fish, it gives him other pleasures. Through it he experiences the intoxication of speed. When it skims over the smooth lagoon waters, sail at an angle and outrigger just out of the water, he knows the same sensations as a flier or a bird caught up in a high wind. There is the same dizzy thrill and rush of fresh air. A missionary might mention a voyage between Makin and Butaritari village, taking two and a half hours, during which the outrigger only touched the water twice and then only for a few moments when it was necessary to slow down to enter the lagoon.
Fish is as necessary to the Gilbertese as beef is to your Londoner, but it is not so easily found. there are no markets. Each man fishes on his own account. The people are so close to water that you'd think it wouldn't be hard to get fish, but this is not so. Catching fish is a problem which is only solved through determination and use of intelligence. The well-populated islands consume an enormous amount of fish; one family could use up twenty kilos in two days. so there is constant fishing, but the supply grows less if one fishes in the same area all the time.
The islands don't all have the same share of facilities. Some have no lagoon. Some villages are badly placed if they want to send canoes out into the ocean. If the various types of fishing I am going to mention give the impression of ease and abundance then one must rememb4er that some types of fishing cannot be carried out every day, the move off and the sport is always chancy. Sometimes there is no canoe, sometimes no net or no line. Most often the fisherman fails in some way: in health, in determination or in courage. On some islands half the young men don't know how to sail a canoe any more. They no longer do any fishing other than with a net from the shore. Their families are forced to eat nothing but small fry. The present generation is better equipped with fishing gear, but they take the easiest way.
The fishing ground - if we can call it that - might be the shore, the lagoon or the open ocean. there are different types of fish in each place. The best-stocked place for fish is the rocky line of reefs around the island. In the coral chambers and grottoes ther3e are a thousand types of fish. his area is also usually the most impossible to reach because of the great breakers which constantly batter against the reef. The patches of rock scatter3ed about the lagoon are also rich in fish. The best fishing ground, however, is in the open sea within about ten miles around the island. The farther away from the reef one goes the less chance there is of good fishing.
Let us suppose that it is the good weather season and the women have prepared a stock of torches. Nigh is about to fall over Kuria. It is an absolute must that two canoes go out together on night fishing so that they can give help should there be any mishap. One man up front hokis a torch, a second works the steering oar and a third holds a landing net on a long pole. The canoe sails along the edge of the reef where the flying fish have come in for the night. Th4re they are, scatter3ed about, motionless, their 'wings' stretched out. They can be clearly seen in the torchlight which suddenly dazzles them. Scooped up first time you can see one flutter in the net until it is quickly emptied into the canoe. Another, startled now, darts father away or stuns itself against the side of the boat - or leaps into the sail. The men have to be careful not to disturb the taraba (hound-fish) as with one leap these little darts, some forty centimetres long, can disembowel a man.
After two hours work the torches are used up. The moon has risen; it isn't quite a full one. This is the time for the ikabauea (barracuda) to hunt for food. The fishing line is hardly in the water before they snap at the bait. The men run them through with one swift thrust - or the bait is lost. You must beware of the barracuda's fearsome teeth, though. Force his head against the side of the boat, bend him until you hear a little cracking noise. Then there is a sigh of breath and he will never again close the long weapon of his jaws for his back is broken.
Shallows extend for a good distance from the northern end of the atoll. Usually, the mingling of winds and currents thee make it an impossible place for canoes. This August night is calm, however, the moonlight tends to frighten away the creatures lurking in coral caves, but it is reassuring for the fisherman who wants to keep an eye on his island.
He piles uu ikanibong (red snapper) and ingo (larger red snapper) in his canoe. These fish are both red but the second one is longer and thicker reaching eighty centimetres in length and attaining a good weight. Young sharks often get mixed up in the fishing. They shower you with water as they splash about and you can lose a good quarter of an hour in stunning them and removing the hook caught in their skin. worst of all is when the large sharks go by and carry away the fishing lines.
As day approaches the canoes coming back from night fishing pass those going out to fish with drag-nets. They work away in the full light of day, battling against the wind, the waves and the sun whose bit is eased by the sea breezes. This fishing is to be a contest between creatures of the same size. The bait is made of cock's feathers and a metal cable attaches the hook to the fishing line, for these hunters of the sea have teeth like a tiger's. The method used against them isn't complicated. You tempt them by dangling bait under their noses as quickly as possible. The Gilbertese canoe is ideal for this as it skims silently and swiftly by, trailing a long rope. It goes by, comes back and goes past again. Furthermore it would keep to its useless course for some time if the sea birds didn't help it, notably the terns. The fisherman watches them and he sees them flying one by one from their nesting-place until they meet over there, rather like a dark cloud low over the water. He follows them. Everything is drawn to that area for the sea too has its cities and towns as well as its deserted areas. A shoal of tiny fish leaps from the water. They don't have a moment's peace for a great school of bonito is after the. You can watch them leaping easily and gobbling up small fry at every attempt. The small fish move in frantic haste, as hard as they can but there are other enemies above: the dark flock of terns. The swoop down and soar up again, screeching, only to drop once more, almost immediately. This remarkable bustle and activity in one little corner of the vast waste of ocean attracts other more powerful creatures, who chase the bonito or attack each other. There's the swordfish, the ingimea and the bara - one rather more bulky, the other more slender and tapered. There are sharks of all shapes and sizes. Then the fisherman arrives, sailing right into the melee. His line is out. The sail goes round and then stays put. The fisherman needs all his strength to deal with his catch and he has to hurry, for there are plenty of sharks there ready to take his fish from him. this drag-fishing - or using a noose, as is the custom on some islands - usually brings in good fish. Quite often the swordfish is more than two metres long. Quite often, too, the large fish break the line and get away.
Drag-fishing methods are rarely any good for catching shark. If the fisherman wants to take one he must lower his sail and use fish as bait. Should he meet up with some shark on the hunt then one of them will soon bite. A shark by itself, however, is more defiant. To take him you must be careful to pull in the line and just enough time to turn ready to make off with the bait. Then the hook will become well embedded in his cheek. Once he feels this he is full of fight and a positive menace to the frail canoe. Your Gilbertese knows his opponent, however, life brings him alongside and while one man controls him, the other thrusts a stick through the shark's mouth, right down into its belly. Then th4e great head and the thrashing body are rendered impotent. The shark is now unable to beat the water with its enormous tail and all that is needed to stun it are a few blows on the nose with a club. This is usually what happens but unfortunately the shark does sometimes have the last word, as it were. It only needs one plank to be damaged and the canoe will sink.
Another thing that happens every year is that some canoes are surprised by sudden squalls and capsize, or drift away. some manage to reach near-by islands. Others never return. Two fishermen from Nikunau whose canoe had been smashed up by a shark were lucky enough to be4 rescued the same ev4ening by a passing ship. A man from Marakei, who had made his line fast around his foot, was dragged away and drowned by his catch! Those sharks that frequent the lagoon or come inshore to hunt, are not usually very dangerous. The local people don't worry much about them when they are bathing. In any case a shark would have to be a pretty good size before it attacked a man and also any rash person isn't always faced with a hungry shark. The most dangerous sharks are those that have been wounded and find it difficult to catch their usual food - or two or three monsters as much as eight or ten metr4es long who only rarely enter the lagoon, usually staying in deep water.
On Tarawa, Tabonaora was fishing off Marenanuka, using a line. He was on a little mound of sand, not far from land. The tide came in - but where was Tabonaora? He didn't come home. A large tiger shark was seen in the area and suspected of having taken the man. The next day the victim's brother went along to the place where he had last been seen. All he had with him was well-sharpened knife. Then the tide came in but th4e man didn't wait long - not until it was high tide. When the shark swam by he went for it and rip9ped open its belly. When the monster was thus cut open the fisherman's body was found inside, sliced in two.
On the same island, Tekatatia, from Buariki, was famous for killing sharks, known for his skill throughout the Gilberts. He always went for them with a knife, using a ray as bait.
Near Bairiki, on Tarawa, a large man-eating shark was sighted. A fisherman who had only his wife with him at his canoe, went off to attack the creature. Father G. saw the shark: its belly was ripped open for about two metres. The fisherman had plunged his knife in just behind the head, in the shark's side, and as it turned away this rip had been caused.
The biggest shark ever was caught by Kake and King Kaiea of Abaiang. It was a hammerhead shark between ten and twelve metres long. Once hooked, it towed the boat all day long and another enormous shark followed it, attracted by the blood.
Brother C. notes that a canoe from Makin paddling its way to Butaritari, in a light and changeable wind, was accompanied by a shark. However much they tried to beat it off with their paddles, it insisted on coming back. At one stage it came so close that they caught it in a noose and made it fast to the canoe, though leaving the end of its tail free. Then they made this galley-slave row and they got to the village earlier than expected and not unduly tired. That evening the useful extra rower was eaten.
Shark's meat is perhaps rather leathery and indigestible, but the local people love it, especially the old ones. The young people are rather less willing to eat it, particularly because of a rather unpleasant smell which afterwards emanates from one's own skin. Some gourmets are very fond of shark's liver but they should beware of this. If the liver has b bilious tinge about it and is curved at the end, then it is very often poisonous.
A whole family in Nikunau ate liver like this and every one of them died in extreme agony. There are no fish that are poisonous in themselves. Even the nautilus is edible if it is properly cleaned. Nevertheless certain areas are suspect, where any fish are bad and may claim victims. The surroundings of sunken ships are especially avoided, because of the carbon and lead monoxide in the area.
A plumpish fish whose flesh is very much appreciated, is the bonito. The Japanese fish for it in the Marshalls, salting it and exporting it to Japan. In the Gilberts there is bonito fishing in the south especially. A piece of mother of pearl is used as a lure on the end of a long rod and if this hits the middle of the shoal, a skilled fisherman can take a fish a minute.
Various types of fishing
When the good season is back then fishing is possible just off the reef. A canoe can float there then quite safely. Its unfamiliar shadow, however, always frightens the fish somewhat. Thus, you can see some bold types using another method. Taking with him a float, a line and a knife, the fisherman swims across the reef. A few spans out beyond it is a good fishing ground. Wearing diving goggles, he can see all the marvels of his island: underwater grottoes, living coral and its brilliantly hued inhabitants. His presence doesn't frighten any of the fish. They swim round him quite happily and he can see them go for his bait without any hesitation. He can make a good catch in very little time and then go back ashore. Sometimes, however, this is spoiled by the arrival of a man-eating shark. Seen by day, he seems to be out on a stroll. The fisherman sends him away by giving him any fish he has caught. Sometimes, instead of using hooks, good divers use a spear. They go off and skewer green, blue, yellow or red fish as they lurk in their grottoes. Sometimes they come face to face with a kauoto (a really big fish) - big enough to take half a man into its vast maw. This great pot-bellied creature is hardly ever awake during the day, however. He may also meet a clumsy type of shark, the babu (with a flat snout) which piles rocks up round itself. It can be taken by the tail but you have to pull it out of the water from a canoe.
Lagoon fishing, though less picturesque, has more variety. Fishermen there can indulge in all manner of rod and line fishing. When they go out torch fishing they may also find mullet amongst other fish. Some of the big lagoons are especially rich in ikari, a plumpish silvery fish some fifty centimetres long with very find white flesh and a great many bones. Tail in the air and nose down in the mud, it lives on worms, various tiny creatures and on crustaceans. You know it is around when the water is rough. Every month after the full moon, shoals of them - females no doubt - go round the island beyond the reef, from north to south. Then it is possible to catch hundreds of them at a time in the net. It is to catch them particularly that the stone fish-traps are built. They are caught when the tide goes out. Then you can on occasion pick up as many as two thousand of them. This is a marvellous windfall for the schools. On some islands ikari account for perhaps half the fish consumed. Every island has its own specialty in the way of fishing, but everywhere on dark nights when the tide is low, you can see moving torches flaming in the blackness. This is kibe - family fishing with a torch at low tide. Women, children - everyone helps to gather small fry. There is no need of canoes or lines. All they need are torches, landing-nets, knives ... Children and poor people too can have a taste of the wealth offered by the sea. On about the seventh day of the moon's cycle they will perhaps bring back crayfish. By day shellfish are there for the picking. They aren't numerous everywhere, but they have a varied size and flavour - everything right up to the giant clam which takes four men to pull it from the depths. The local doesn't bother much about any over-heavy shell and quite often he breaks the edges of the bivalve. If, afte4r a good ten or so dives, he manages to remove the mollusc from its shell, then he brings back a basket containing a slimy mass, which can be eaten. The sea doesn't offer any crabs worth eating. The best are found in the mangrove roots - or in the forest where you get the coconut-crab: far superior to any crayfish.
On some beaches you can pull what looks like a long thick piece of macaroni out of the sand. This is the ibo, sometimes called sea asparagus, a type of worm. Between the rocks you may find the waro (mantis prawn), a white crustacean which has as defence two comb-edged claws that fold up. For this reason the locals call their pocket-knives after the creature. Its soft centre, incidentally, is delicious.
The Gilbertese have two kinds of traps: one for fish amongst rocks and the other for the eel. This latter is made of very hard sticks, tied close together. A sort of string pocket forms an entrance. In it you can catch eels thicker than a wrestler's arm. There is no eel fishing by hand as this would be too dangerous when you consider the teeth, stings and prickles that abound. Nevertheless, it is tempting on a fine moonlit night to slip a noose round the tail of the nunuo (a fish with poisonous darts on its tail). It's so much the worse for the fisherman who mistakes the end of the fish! If you feel this being bitten then at least you are warned.
Yet even if he is hurt the fisherman comes back, for he must eat and he knows the dangers. Your fisherman defies these dangers and mocks them, yet every time anyone goes into the water, even if it is nothing more than walking over mud or amongst coral, he runs a risk. There is the shark, the ray, the eel, the taraba or the nunua (barracuda) bristling with teeth like a fierce hound. Any one of these may sink its teeth into you and then slip away. Then there are the jelly fish who float by and leave smarting blisters on your skin. there is also the treacherous non (stonefish) so ugly that it conceals itself in the mud and whose ugliness is recalled in its Gilbertese name. It slides under your foot and its poisonous prickles give you an extremely uncomfortable sore. There are plenty of sly enemies awaiting bare feet: coral, sea-urchins, sharp-pointed shells and all the filthy creatures that lurk in the mud.
One fanatic fisherman was old Te Kariringa, from Kuria. He had no equal for agility fifty years ago. His favourite sport? Spear-f9shing when he would chase the fish through the water with all the grace of a dancer. Once he came up so swiftly behind his spear which was skewering something in the sand, that he impaled his own thigh on the wooden handle. He broke the bone and after that he limped. As he wasn't nimble enough on land, he spent half his life on his canoe. Frequently he slept there, with a shark he had caught at his head, waiting for another to come up from below and wake him from his slumbers.
He watched for the return of calm nights where there wasn't a breath of wind to set the canoes drifting. Then, with one of his friends, he would make for a bay on the north coast of the island, where the reef was very close to the land. Beyond the reef there was a sharp descent to a ledge swarming with fish. Te Kariringa brought back many strange creatures from that area. On his big hook he put rather smaller pieces of bait. He paid no attention to light tugs on the line but when he felt a heavier weight added to that of the stone at the end of his line, he began to pull the line in. It was no easy task to pull in a hundred and fifty to two hundred spans of line and whatever was on the end. His hands smarted and his friend had to take a turn. At last there was something wriggling. It was only small fry, though: a greenish creature, about half a meter long, with four hooked fins about a thumb's length in size - the eri. There were two of three of these. Finally there came a dark inert mass, gasping for breath and with its huge eyes affected by the sudden starlight. They met this monster with a spear through its body. The two men each took an end of it and hauled on to the canoe a sort of marine porcupine. Anyone who touched it would have found his hand covered in blood. What about is flesh? It would be impossible to tell all the jokes that it gave rise to. It wasn't so much that you needed Epsom salts after eating it, or that it nauseated you or made you violently ill. The effects were mush more subtle and you wouldn't really be aware that anything was happening to you. To mitigate the purgative effects of eating the creature's flesh, they boiled it twice and salted it. Then it lasted good and didn't have a bad effect on anyone's health.
The Gilbertese export none of the things that fishing brings in except sharks' fins which the Chinese use to make soup. The sale of these brought in 715 pounds sterling in 1926 but nowadays this little bit of profit has gone down. Nor are sea-cucumbers (beche de mer) sold. No really good quality mother-of-pearl has been found. In fact there is nothing that might attract outside interest. This sea is thus left entirely at the disposal of the Gilbertese.
Gilbertese Myths, Legends And Stories, Beliefs, Religion And Superstition & Work